Why Ômicron mutations don’t necessarily mean it is worse

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The new Ômicron variant of the coronavirus, with its multiple mutations and seemingly rapid spread in South Africa, is worrying scientists and governments alike.

But doctors want to remind the American population that they are already facing a formidable variant of the coronavirus, which is Delta.

The Delta variant managed to completely dominate the United States in a matter of weeks into the early summer, overshadowing the country’s outlook on vaccine delivery and equally quick hopes.

“At the end of June, the moving average of cases reported in seven days was around 12,000. On July 27, the moving average of cases reported in seven days reached 60,000 cases. This case frequency was more like what we saw before the vaccine was widely available,” says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. “The Delta variant is highly contagious, twice as much as the previous variants”, he adds.

The Delta variant currently accounts for more than 99% of coronavirus cases that are genetically sequenced in the US, according to the CDC.

It remains to be seen whether the Ômicron variant will outperform Delta, but the situation will be difficult anyway.

“We still have, of course, in the US, a serious emergence of the Delta variant. We should be thinking about this,” Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health, tells CNN.

The US has now averaged 70,094 new Covid-19 cases and 730 deaths daily, according to Johns Hopkins University. The institution also says that 75% of the ICU beds are occupied, 15% of them being for patients with the coronavirus.

Comparison between Ômicron and Delta

Much is being done with the 50 mutations that mark the Ômicron variant, with 32 of them in the spike protein, which is the spiny structure that covers the surface of the virus and is used to attach itself to human cells so that the virus can infect them.

But the Delta variant also has its own constellation of frightening mutations that make it the worst version of the virus. It quickly travels through the population, passing over other more worrying variants that could even escape the effects of vaccines, such as the Beta variant, for example.

Robert Garry, a virologist at Tulane University, did a thorough comparison of mutations found in the Delta and Ômicron variants.

The Ômicron variant does have “many mutations,” Garry tells CNN. “But we’ve kind of seen this kind of leap in evolution before,” he adds.

“There are definitely main areas where the virus prefers to mutate at the moment”, he says. But just the fact that there are several mutations does not necessarily mean that they result in a worse virus.

“What all these changes together will contribute to things that matter about the virus, we still don’t know,” comments Garry.

But in the case of Ômicron, he notes that there are many important mutations that could make it more contagious than Delta.

“Are the [mutações ]that can affect the level of contagion, I say, but I’m not seeing so many that can give an advantage over Delta”, he explains.

“That’s the big question. When you reach a population that is already dealing with the Delta variant, will it be worse or not?” asks Garry.

Other genetics experts, however, note that Ômicron does not contain some of the mutations that helped Delta to be so contagious.

“Given that Ômicron lacks several of the mutations unrelated to the spike protein that apparently contributed to the suitability of the Delta variant, it would not be surprising if its level of contagion was similar to that of the Gamma variant,” said Trevor Bedford, scientist on Twitter Genome and Epidemiologist at the University of Washington and at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center.

He pointed to a study from September this year in which researchers at the Broad Institute found that at least three mutations in the Delta variant apparently helped make it more transmissible.

Some of the mutations that facilitated transmission were also seen in variants that were controlled, such as the one named Kappa.

Protection against Covid-19

Garry also notes that there are other mutations that may contribute to the Ômicron variant being able to avoid the body’s immune system response, especially for those that have already been infected.

“Probably [a Ômicron] it is immune to immune system responses. Just like Delta and before it with Alpha and Beta. Should we work on a specific vaccine? Yes”, says the virologist.

The immune system response produced by the vaccine is broader than the response produced by a natural infection, so vaccinated people may still be protected from severe symptoms, doctors say.

“Your best protection against the Delta variant is to get vaccinated, and if you have already been vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna for more than six months or with Johnson & Johnson for more than two months, take the booster”, guides Dr. Francis Collins on CNN.

“[A Delta] it was a reason in itself [para se vacinar], but now we’ve added Ômicron”, says the director. “And we believe that this new variant, which will likely be difficult to deal with, will also be something that vaccines and boosters can help,” he adds.

The CDC reinforced its guidance on boosters last Monday (29), saying that all adults should take boosters six months after the second dose of Moderna or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines or two months after the single dose of Johnson & Johnson.

And there are no known mutations that can cause a virus to escape precautionary care such as wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping physical distance. Even though a mutation helps the virus become easier to transmit through the air, adequate ventilation can help prevent transmission.

(Translated text. Read the original here).

Reference: CNN Brasil

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